Most expats have their favourite Vietnamese restaurant, the one to which they bring their parents and friends. You know the one I mean; where we show visitors that there’s more to Vietnamese cooking than pho, more than street food, banh mi or com tam.
You know, the one that demonstrates that Vietnamese food can be haute cuisine?
Mountain Retreat, right in the pulsing heart of downtown Saigon, is that kind of restaurant. Inspired renditions of classic dishes, creatively old-fashioned ambience and terrific service are all the ingredients required; the refreshing rooftop garden and spectacular night-time view were a welcome bonus.
I arrived with my date, and a visiting family member at the same time as a shower of rain, so we couldn’t sit in the rooftop garden; instead the waitress led us to a small but well-appointed table for three.
We started with drinks; amberella juice (VND45,000), a passion fruit juice cocktail (VND95,000) and a tropical rain cocktail (VND95,000), a lovely combination of fruit juices with a hefty sting lurking under the sweet.
The star of the evening was presented first; soaked beef with fish sauce and rice paper (VND115,000), a superior version of a type of dish we all should know. The rice paper was standard, but the thin-sliced beef was delicately flavoured, and the plate of vegetables was massive, with green bananas, pineapple, starfruit, lettuce, leafy herbs and pickled carrots and radish.
My date deftly assembled the rolls and passed them around the table: my family member was visiting Vietnam for the first time, and we had to give him a hand when it came to the intricacies of fine dining, Saigon-style. This relative dipped rolls into fish sauce, and I watched his eyes widen as he took a bite.
My personal favourites were the stir-fried gourd flowers (VND75,000) and rau muong with beef (VND75,000), yet more unusually well-done versions of classic dishes.
Lastly came the chicken with green rice (VND95,000). Unfortunately it was too oily — the usually crispy green rice had turned soggy underneath.
Along with that we tucked into garlic fried rice (VND75,000), a nice variation on a familiar theme, light with crispy garlic, not heavily oiled and long on flavour.
Nothing clashed. The meal worked well in combination — and based on the care taken with the menu, it’s not hard for me to think that most any such combination would work as a meal.
The bill came to a wonderfully cheap VND726,000 — actually, it felt more like us robbing them rather than the kind of price you often encounter at tourist-aimed restaurants in many countries.
A Mountain Retreat, an Urban Oasis
The nature of Mountain Retreat means I need to devote more space than usual to decor and service.
Wattle and daub have been swirled along the walls, a gorgeous change from the usual stained plaster or bare concrete. Red lanterns and shelves of ceramic pots and smiling Buddhas complete the image of a simple country inn transported into the downtown of Vietnam’s largest city.
Separated by rattan and bamboo partitions, the rooftop garden is lush, almost overgrown, and complements the bamboo partitions and water-aged wooden furniture. Touring outside after dinner, truly did the restaurant’s name justice. We were, indeed, in a mountain retreat, though the mountains looming bright-lit above us were glass and steel, not native stone.
The service shone, too, balancing seeing to our needs and leaving us alone better than any other Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been to in recent memory. All the servers were polite, even friendly, and gave the impression they liked their work. If the pace slowed a bit at times, it fit the idyllic image of Mountain Retreat. Even so, food came in properly timed waves, never leaving us without something to eat, all the way through up to paying the bill.
Mountain Retreat is at Top Floor, 36 Le Loi, Q1, HCMC
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals